Strategic Foresight can be an important tool for understanding what technological changes are just over the horizon and heading our way. As the old adage goes, “forewarned is forearmed.” But horizon scanning is only a first step, albeit a critically important one. To be truly effective, strategic foresight and horizon scanning need to be accompanied by strategic vision so that policy makers, business executives and civil society more generally can discern what impact that technology is likely to have and how to respond. Specifically, what can they do, together or separately, to mitigate the potential downside and capitalize on the potential upside of these seemingly inexorable technological changes?
This question highlights a number of critical challenges and opportunities for both the business and development communities. For example:
- As science fiction writer William Gibson is reported to have said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Clearly, just as there was an earlier fear of a digital divide, many of the disruptive, but potentially beneficial, technologies heading our way may bypass emerging markets, especially the lowest income countries. If so, we need to ask, "How can strategic foresight and strategic vision help us offset or mitigate these potentially adverse distributional impacts?” What are the broken circuits – in the realm of finance, intellectual property, indigenous science and engineering capacity, technology transfer and deployment mechanisms, product design, local customs, etc. – that influence which technologies are deployed in which countries? And perhaps even more importantly, what can we do to speed the deployment of new technologies to places where they are needed to address critical social and economic development challenges?
- The same disruptive technology may have very different disruptive impacts in developed and developing countries. Developed countries may have more human, financial, scientific, engineering, and organizational capacity to absorb, adapt, and adopt a new technology. But these disruptive technologies may face more resistance due to all the vested interests and sunk costs in old technologies, organizations, and institutions. For example, some analysts predict that electric utilities may face a so-called “death spiral” as roof top solar and wind energy displace 100% of the electricity generated from conventional sources, at least during daytime hours. This in turn, will have serious implications for the financial viability of conventional utilities and the investors who financed them. Developing countries, on the other hand, precisely because they are more of a tabula rasa -- i.e., the electricity grid doesn't extend to many rural and peri-urban areas and is unlikely to reach many of these areas in the next five to ten years -- may prove to be more fertile ground for the deployment of these same off-grid, renewable energy technologies. As Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak noted recently, “Fast-developing nations aren’t wedded to the same old ideas and ideologies, like some industrialized nations are. We don’t have the same vested interest in the Victorian economy, the same sunk capital that holds us back by constricting our ability to move forward. We don’t necessarily believe that the best way to generate energy is to set fire to something.”
- Related to this is the distinction between retrofitting and leapfrogging. Developing countries may be able to leapfrog more easily than developed countries. Since they don't have to adopt and discard generations of older, outmoded technology, they will be less encumbered by stranded assets. Hence they may be able to more readily adopt new technologies. Developed countries, by comparison, may have to retrofit existing installations and graft new technologies onto old systems and institutions -- cities, transportation systems, power grids, buildings, etc. For example, a large portion of the buildings that will exist in US cities 30 years from now have already been built. That's not necessarily the case in Mumbai or Kigali. What repercussions will this have for the deployment of energy saving technologies in the building sector? At a minimum, we can say with certainty that the challenges of retrofitting cities, power grids, and transport systems may be substantially different than the challenges of leapfrogging.
- Even if we know which technologies are heading our way, a key challenge will be building the institutions that can foster the deployment of these technologies in emerging markets. For example, nanofilters that can transform dirty water into affordable, WHO or EPA-quality drinking water have existed for some time already. Yet that potentially life-saving technology, by itself, has been relatively powerless to solve the drinking water problem. The critical obstacle, it seems, is not a lack of technological know-how. We already know how to produce effective filters and even more effective, lower cost filters will be available in the near future. But a filter, by itself, will not foster more widespread access to clean drinking water unless it is embedded in an organizational and institutional structure – i.e., some sort of business or social enterprise -- that can organize, finance, and manage the deployment of this technology in thousands of communities around the world. Similarly, the price of PV cells has been falling dramatically in recent years, bringing off-grid electricity within reach of many of the world's poor. By itself, however, this development hasn't solved the sustainable energy for all issue. Strategic foresight and technology horizon scanning is a potentially useful upstream step for understanding how future technological changes may unleash new solutions to age-old problems, but it won't deliver development results unless we also focus on the closely related downstream technology deployment issues.
- Finally, I think it is important to put technology horizon scanning in the broader context of megatrends. The UN discussion paper defines strategic foresight as "areas of scientific research and technological development likely to influence change." This is a very STI/technology oriented definition. That's fine. But megatrends is a much broader concept. For example, it includes such non-technology trends as the rapid growth of megacities, the rise of peri-urban areas, the rising incidence of ageing populations in developed countries and the emergence of a "youth bulge" in developing countries. The really interesting issues emerge when disruptive, exponential technologies collide with these broader megatrends to generate the possibility of smart cities, the internet of things, 3D printing, big data, the cloud, etc. What does all this portend for development and the forthcoming sustainable development goals? For example, will we need mechanisms that will enable us to scale up scaled down, distributed solutions for delivering clean drinking water and power to underserved groups? Should developing countries strive to build smart cities? Or, if this is this beyond their current technological, human capital and financial capacity, should they simply strive for more liveable, less smart cities?
Hats off to CSTD and UNCTAD for raising this issue to the forefront of the development agenda!